A life of ever more questions

Doris Lessing still has many thoughts to put down on paper

March 19, 2004|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN ARTS WRITER

PHILADELPHIA - They come in droves to the woman with the brightly colored scarf around her neck with question after question. Questions that, when you get right down to it, are about their own lives. Some she can answer, and some she cannot.

What is the secret to aging well? To her amazing productivity? Does she despair for the human race?

At 84, acclaimed author Doris Lessing is treated as a wise woman, a shaman, a kind of tribal elder.

In response to that last question, she said: "We're very resourceful and strong as a race. We should cheer ourselves up by thinking of the horrors we've survived. We should stay calm."

You could see the veneration that she inspired in the crowd at the Philadelphia Free Library, where Lessing was reading from her newest book, The Grandmothers, a collection of four novellas. The auditorium was crammed with 400 people on a Wednesday night, mostly middle-aged white women. An overflow group paid half-price ($6) to sit in another room and watch the event on closed-circuit television.

In New York, where she was earlier this week, Lessing is so popular that they had to schedule two readings on Monday and Tuesday. Her U.S. tour continues with a stop at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington at 8 tonight.

"She's a remarkable lady," said Micki Ginsberg of Moorestown, N.J. "She's the woman we all want to be at 85 - strong, independent and opinionated."

She is the woman who is short-listed most years for the Nobel Prize in Literature, who has authored 35 novels and books of short stories; a book of poetry; four plays; the libretto for an opera composed by Philip Glass and nine nonfiction works, including a two-volume, 823-page autobiography that takes her up to age 43.

She is the woman with the restless, brilliant mind. She has written extensively about racial discrimination, African colonial politics, communism (she joined the party in the early 1950s, but later became disillusioned with it), male-female relations, psychoanalysis, the devastating effects of war, and Sufism, a Muslim form of Eastern mysticism.

So varied are Lessing's interests, most people can find a facet of her that reflects their own preoccupations. Yet so extensive is Lessing's oeuvre that none but the most intrepid of her devotees have read it in its entirety. While many can lay hold of a piece of her, precious few can grasp the writer in her totality.

During the question-and-answer session in Philadelphia, one woman expressed the hope that Lessing will write Part 3 of her autobiography and discuss her spiritualism. "What goes on inside your soul?" the woman asked. (With characteristic acerbity, the author answered: "This is neither the time nor place.")

After the reading, another fan, Fran Mongiello of Lansdale, Pa., said she first read The Golden Notebook (1962) - perhaps Lessing's best-known work - when she was 22. "I couldn't believe my emotions and thoughts were on her pages," she said. "I thought, `Ohmigod, there are other people out there who feel the way that I do.'"

All that power and complexity is packed into a woman whom old age has shrunk to a few inches short of 5 feet. Her hair is wavy, white, parted in the middle and pulled into a bun. Her face has become a landscape not unlike the African bush that she roamed in her youth: a vast network of wrinkles like swift-running rivers and creeks that crisscross and connect the plains.

But if Lessing is a strong-willed old woman, it may be because she was a strong-willed young one. That was true at age 14, when she dropped out of school, deciding the education system for British colonials in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) had nothing to offer her. So, she taught herself, and by all accounts has done a thorough job of it.

More controversially, in 1949 she left behind her two oldest children, then toddlers, when she moved permanently to London. John and Jean remained in Africa with their father, Frank Wisdom, a civil servant to whom Lessing had been married for four years.

She took with her baby Peter after a second marriage, to Gottfried Lessing, a leader of the local communist party, also dissolved. She has written that however shocking her abandonment of two of her children might seem, for her it was a matter of life and death.

"The fact is, I would not have survived," she writes in Under My Skin, the first part of her autobiography.

"A nervous breakdown would have been the least of it. In the four years I was married to Frank, I drank more than before or since. I would have become an alcoholic, I am pretty sure. I would have had to live at odds with myself, riven, hating what I was a part of."

In an interview in her hotel room before the reading, she said that both children grew up to lead productive lives. John became a tobacco farmer before his premature death of a heart attack in 1992 at age 52.

Her daughter, Jean, is married to a lawyer in South Africa and will visit her mother next week. Jean's two daughters pop in and out of Lessing's London flat frequently.

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